Princeton's «Boris Godunov», 1936/2007

First Encounters of an Outsider with Boris

Tim Vasen, Director


Tim Vasen teaches acting and directing in the Program in Theater and Dance at Princeton University, and has also worked exten­sively in actor training at the Yale School of Drama and New York University’s Graduate Acting Program. This is his testimonial to the Boris project.


     In the winter of 2006 Simon Morrison offered me a unique directing oppor­tunity, perhaps the most interesting and challenging I’ve yet faced. The task at hand: to create a production of one of Russia’s best-known plays, almost completely unknown in the U.S., in a brand-new English transla­tion that was at once coherent for the American audience who had never seen it and provocative for the visiting Russians who could recite it from memory; one that stood on its own as a piece of theater in the spring of 2007 in Princeton and at the same time brought to fruition an unfulfilled collaboration between a great director and a great composer working together under Stalin’s shadow in 1930s Moscow; to honor a nineteenth-century telling of a sixteenth-century tale with twentieth-century music and twenty-first-century stagecraft; to introduce Pushkin, Prokofiev, and Meyerhold to the undergraduate actors and singers and dancers and musi­cians who would make up the hundred-strong company; to create a design with a group of graduate architecture students that would allow space for this massive project, enable this complex story to be told, and echo the major contributions Meyerhold made to the art of scenic design while hon­oring his spirit by making something entirely new. Whew. This would re­quire more than “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” Lucky for me, I had a lot of help. The Boris Godunov Project was collaborative to its very core, and the best part of my job was that I got to work directly with everybody, in­cluding the three Russian masters whose vision and material called forth our hardest and best work.

     What I’m shooting for when I direct a play is that the production be­come a free-standing edifice that resists summation, simplification, or in­deed any kind of translation into another medium. This is why I hate watching videotapes of theater. The Olympian perspective has always eluded me; the best I know how to do is approach anything as a series of small steps. Here are a few.


1. Almost Complete Ignorance

     January 2006: I’m sitting in someone’s rehearsal, ostensibly supervising tech, but actually leafing through a pile of pages Michael Cadden has handed me—it’s the page-proof of [Chester Dunning’s] The Uncensored Boris Godunov, and at first it takes me a while to find the play—which I initially think is about 500 pages long, but all that extra stuff turns out to be essays and the Cyrillic text. Finally I get to the play. I figure if I can’t get through a play without reading footnotes, there’s trouble somewhere, so I plow ahead, trying to follow all of the scenes and characters and Slavic names. Hmmm. Feels a little like Danton’s Death meets the Henry VI plays—all over the place, passionate, fascinating, hard to follow. I actu­ally can’t believe that the Pretender gets away with it in the end.… At this point I don’t even know that I’m going to spend the next year as the direc­tor, and I have no sense of the huge scope of the project, but I’m in­trigued—there’s more here than I can get from a first reading. This is usually a good reason to direct a play.

     Well before I began to understand the play and its place in the Rus­sian canon, it was clear to me that this is not our masterpiece—it’s liberat­ing to direct one of the world’s great plays in a community for which it’ll be brand new. There’s a lot to learn to even make sense of it, but at least we’re not encumbered by centuries of performance tradition. We have nothing to measure ourselves against other than the material itself. On the other hand, Pushkin wrote for an audience, imaginary or otherwise, that was intimately familiar with the history involved, and used a drama­turgical shorthand that must’ve been mystifying even to his contempo­raries. A century later, Meyerhold’s abstractions were a brilliant solution to the problem of twenty-five different locations, partly because all the lo­cations were well known—nobody in a Russian audience needed to be shown what the Kremlin looked like, or what a boyar was, or what the backstory and the sequel were. This allowed the playwright and his direc­tor tremendous freedom. How could we make a production that honored that freedom, and at the same time told the story clearly enough that an American audience had even a prayer of understanding what was going on?


2. Becoming Slightly Less Ignorant

     It had to begin with my own education, in Caryl Emerson and Simon Mor­rison’s offices, and then in Moscow. It was a mind-opening experience, see­ing the scale of tsarist Russia, the eerie parallels with the Stalin era, the intimate connection between medieval icon painting and the creative ex­plosion of the Soviet 1920s, but I think the most important moment was a quiet one, a visit to a relatively unobtrusive apartment building with my indefatigable guide, Maria Ratanova. From my Notes, 7/21/2006: “We rang the street-level bell—no answer. Then three women in black, back from the funeral of an actor, walk up behind us and open the door. They run the museum, of course. A moment from Bulgakov—the mysteries of Moscow. In the 1930s, this yellow room was the epicenter of Russian culture—Mey­erhold, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mayakovsky, Eisenstein (who learned montage from things Meyerhold did on stage). Then M arrested, and his wife murdered in the corner. Now it’s being re-assembled as a museum—everything is packed and wrapped. There’s the set model for [Sergei Tretiakov’s 1926] I Want a Baby—I have no idea what the play is, but that’s about the coolest set I’ve ever seen. ‘Meyerhold was a cos­mos’—Natasha, who runs the museum and should know.”

     Standing in Meyerhold’s apartment, staring at the parquet floor con­templating my ratty sneakers after Natasha informed me that I was standing where Mayakovsky would recite poetry, I had a bit of a conver­sion. When I signed on to the project, it was with the understanding that I would direct it, not try to reproduce Meyerhold’s staging (even if that were possible), and I had held him somewhat at arm’s length. There was no way I could do the production he never finished—it would be out of context, for the wrong audience and in the wrong time—but I felt a keen sense of re­sponsibility, and deep interest, in taking in whatever I could, and seeing how it worked in the here and now. This was probably the single best deci­sion I made during my year with the project.


3. Making an Acting Company

     Another pivot point: in the spring of 2006 we had our first general meet­ing, and the scope of the project was laid bare: the orchestra, the glee club, the library exhibit, the symposium. Someone asked me if I knew who would play Boris and the Pretender, and many in the room were surprised when I responded that it would depend on who auditioned. Should we get professional actors for the most important roles? I had taken for granted something that was more radical than I knew at the time—that we would create a cast using only the students that came in to audition. There could be no ringers, no professionals, no recent graduates, however talented. . . . Most big projects like this would never get off the ground without at least an idea of who was going to play the lead roles. For the students, this would be a massive, unprecedented commitment, and everyone had to enter into it voluntarily and (I hoped) enthusiastically.

     In auditions, I probe for skills the students may not know they have, by making people move and speak in irrational ways. Those who can han­dle being asked to do the speech again while pretending to be under sniper fire, or while walking only on the tops of whatever furniture is in the room, or while completely drunk are the ones I invite into the company. I aimed for a roughly equal number of men and women. The first week: scary e-mails, dropouts. Then a rough doubling scheme; then a rough reading with about half of them. Then a better doubling scheme, then an­other dropout after the first rehearsal, and a few re-arrangements during tablework. Everybody gets at least one substantial part; the rest is about necessity and the occasional artistic impulse.


4. Design

     Notes. “9/15/06—first architecture seminar, amid rainstorm and construc­tion noises—all this abstraction is about to become concrete—ready to build, to not be so precious.” The middle phase, the least glamorous part, is where all the important work actually gets done. Despite my initial re­sistance, this feels right, since the entire project, following Pushkin, is about multiplicity of perspectives. The set that resulted [the “bungees”] was the most challenging, interesting, and creative design I’ve ever worked with, and more importantly served both Pushkin’s play and Meyerhold’s conception, allowing us to give the audience all the informa­tion they needed to follow the leaps and bounds, to create and destroy space at will, and to give physical expression to the workings of fate and the inner lives of those bound by it.


5. Godunov, Stalin, Meyerhold—Models for Leadership?

     Directors and dictators have more in common than either might want to admit. We’re both in the business of organizing the chaotic world into something that reflects our sense of How Things Should Be. Somewhere in my notes during the fall of 2006: “totalitarianism produces really good staging—or really precise, anyway.” I think we were looking at North Korean mass games in the architecture seminar, and I’d been struck by the massive socialist realism canvases I’d seen in Moscow. There is a terri­fying seductiveness to an ordered universe—just look at Leni Riefenstal’s gorgeous footage of Nazi stagecraft. At this point, my superficial under­standing of Meyerhold emphasized the precision of his staging. But I don’t think I’d last a week as an all-knowing master, arranging the universe to my liking. I usually find the universe as it is more compelling than any­thing I can pre-arrange in my head.

     To save my sanity when I’m directing something, I force myself to be honest about what I don’t know. If you’re a tyrant running a country, you probably don’t have that luxury because there are always people around waiting to kill you and take over at any sign of weakness. It was impor­tant to me to give the students as much autonomy as they could handle—the sense that at every turn, as many perspectives as possible were being explored. I’d been heading in this direction for a long time anyway, but between Meyerhold’s repositioning of the actor as the central communi­cator (in place of the director), and Caryl Emerson’s suggestion of Push­kin’s tragicomic historical worldview, with the brutal end fixed but the means open and unknown, I came to see this kind of collaboration as the only way I could do justice to this subversive, unruly, and deeply reward­ing play.


6. Rehearsal Bits

     One of Meyerhold’s most powerful ideas was to stage every scene that Pushkin wrote—some had been lost to censorship, some to performance traditions. As with Prokofiev’s music, the complete text came to me as a given, so I assumed that everything in the play was essential, and our job was to discover its purpose. A case in point. Pushkin’s brief scene 7, “The Patriarch’s Palace,” seemed irrelevant until I began rehearsing it with Max Staller [Father Superior] and Nadia Talel [Patriarch]. We quickly developed a strong physical power relationship, with the Patriarch howl­ing, and marching in time to her booming staff, and the Father Superior shuffling along in double time behind, bent in half as he delivers the bad news about Grigory Otrepiev’s escape from the monastery and reinvention as the heir to the throne. Our work on this brief scene taught us a physical approach to the rest of the play.

     Working with Rebecca, our motion consultant and choreographer, what I jotted down in my notebook: “For every thought supported by a feeling, there’s a muscle change: the workout, the archer, the balancing, Laban. Strong, light, quick, sustained, direct, indirect.” The economy of Boris: there is no filler: not textual, not physical, not musical. Everything is there for a reason. “When building the battle, harness the actors’ crea­tivity, as Rebecca’s exercises do—the stimulation of structure—freedom to interpret—in a group. This produces a really rich field.”

     One of the most documented moments from Meyerhold’s aborted re­hearsals was scene 8, “The Tsar’s Palace.” In the manuscript, Pushkin had titled it “Boris and the Soothsayers” and Meyerhold ran with it, planning a cacophony of chants, rattles and hums to accompany and in fact over­shadow Boris’s “I have attained the highest power” speech. My first reac­tion was to see this as the equivalent to a Western director, trying to be new and different, having Hamlet recite “To be or not to be” while facing upstage and riding a unicycle. Meyerhold is quoted as regarding this speech as one of Pushkin’s less successful, which I didn’t agree with, but I was obeying my own decision to try every idea of Meyerhold’s we had on record, so off we went. Andy Brown, the senior who played Boris, has a very strong voice and is well able to hold his own onstage, so I asked five or six actors who happened to be in the room at the time to improvise a gang of fortune-tellers literally attached to the Tsar as he tried to com­municate with the audience about the perils of power (Figure 5. Scene 8, Boris and Soothsayers). All of us immediately sensed that this would work—another moment of synthesis: “Boris + soothsayers. Damn. Meyer­hold’s idea is good. It elevates the monologue, puts pressure on Boris—he must reach us through the throng—this screen of bullshit. But part of him also believes the bullshit, thinks it might save his life.”

     “They are at their best when there is a strong physical idea—some­thing to organize/channel energies. All types should have a common rhythm, walk, gestural language—boyars—ecclesiasticals—the narod—Poles. This play is more-than-average interesting, when on its feet. (Or is it just that we know so much, now?)”

     “3/16 stumble-through—now I know what Meyerhold meant about Pushkin’s verse needing to be light—the play is impatient, does not sup­port weighty, ponderous delivery. Seize the moment before it passes—our attention focuses on you for a second, and then it moves on. The impor­tance of change: physical, vocal, rhythmic, perspectival—it’s the play and the production.”

     The accidental birth of something I really liked: At first I wanted to be able to get the orchestra in place at intermission without being seen, so I tried to bring in the main drape. But it was going to hit the lights, so we gave up on the curtain, figuring we could do it all behind the downstage scrim and upstage blackout curtain, which was true. But now the image of a classical curtain was in my head, and it seemed appropriately rebellious, that an audience coming in to see an unfinished Meyerhold project would be greeted by a stodgy curtain with the implied promise of a naturalistic set lurking behind. So I asked Steve Lauritano, our projection artist from the architecture class, to project a slide of a curtain instead, which looked great and made me laugh, because it was another collision of the past and the present. Then during one run-through there was a mistake in the cue sequence, and the lights came up on Sam Zetumer as Shuisky, pulling a single bungee cord taut while contemplating the empty throne, but the im­age of the curtain was still there, with Sam perfectly framed in the middle of it. He let the cord go, it sliced through the air, the curtain image melted away and the scrim flew up. Not what I “intended,” but this became one of my favorite moments. It’s hard to start a play well, with a theatrical ges­ture that immediately establishes the world of the production. This felt as close to my own sense of “good” as it gets—and was entirely a result of compromise and accident.